Over the past few years it seems like death and major illness have been hovering everywhere around me – I’ve lost friends to illness, have stood with family as some have won, and some lost, the battle with cancer. For a few short months things calmed down. And then my mother, my mad, crazy, full-of-life rocking babe of a mother, dropped dead suddenly while putting her clothes in the washer. Bang. Just like that. It was exactly how she would have wanted it, but oh, the hell of it for the rest of us. Losing irreplaceable people made me think twice and then another ten or twenty or hundred thousand times about mortality. I took some time off to manage mom’s estate, and to stop and think about what I wanted to do in my life. What had I dreamt about? What was stopping me from making those dreams real? What was I afraid of?
I’ve been around music and musicians most of my life: singing along to Beatles songs after a Thanksgiving dinner, part of a folk trio in high school, writing lyrics to rock and roll songs with my bassist ex-boyfriend. I think some of the songs were even good. I can carry a tune, sing harmony. But I never had the nerve to seriously imagine getting up on a stage. Risky. Way more risky than anything else I know how to do, and I’m not normally a fearful person. New places don’t scare me – I’ve lived alone in a country where I didn’t speak the language: tough, but no fear. Change doesn’t shake me – I moved to New York in the heart of a recession with no job, big career dreams and a very tiny bank balance: tricky, but no palpitations. Public speaking doesn’t even get my blood pressure up – I’m a designer and I’ve had to pitch projects on the spur of the moment with no formal preparation: if I know what I’m talking about, I’m fine, no matter who I’m presenting to. But I’d always wondered what it would be like to sing with other people, full-throated, together, in harmony, under lights, actually up on a stage. I just wondered, that’s all, and never let myself dream beyond the shower curtain. My sister is a theater producer in New York, so I get to see a lot of shows. Some of them are awful but all of them have heart and I am in awe of anyone who has the nerve to stand on a stage and sing their heart out while dancing or acting or managing to do anything other than melting into a puddle of quivering jelly. Could I ever do it? Probably not, I thought. But what a hoot it would be to give it a try.
Here in New York there is really no such thing as community theater. I asked around and found that you practically have to have headshots and a resume to participate in any local production of anything. The talent here is that deep and that good. Over my morning coffee a couple of months ago I read an article in the New York Times about the After Work Theater Project: a brilliant idea by the brilliant Evan Greenberg. He missed performing as he had while in school – some of the happiest times he could remember. He got to thinking about how he could recreate that environment, those experiences – and came up with the idea of a recreational theater company, in New York City, for adults who had the stage itch but no way to scratch it. Think of AWTP as theater camp: you pay tuition, you commit to a three-month after work and Saturday rehearsal schedule, and perform for friends and family in a staged production. Genius. You audition so the creative team can cast the show – maybe you’re in the ensemble, maybe you get a tiny part, maybe you’re a lead. They’d done Hair as their inaugural production, and it was reasonably well-reviewed, in the Times no less. RENT would be their next production. A show about loss, love and living in the moment. Hmmm. I clicked on the link and there was the website with a sign-up page. I took a very deep breath, filled out the form and hit send. Whatever the outcome, I’d nudged myself to dream.
A few weeks later the AWTP creative team emailed info for Launch Day: studio address and sheet music for two songs to prepare for those who were interested in trying out for a lead. Try out even if you’re NOT hoping for a lead, they wrote, you never know what we’re looking for. Sheet music? I don’t read music, and certainly can’t sight sing, so I fired up the Broadway cast version on Amazon and sang along. What was I getting into?
Launch Day arrived on a cold Saturday morning. I climbed up the creaky wood stairs to rehearsal studio 2B, and felt like I’d stepped into a movie. There were over fifty people milling around, most of them in their 20s and early 30s; hugs, smiles, hellos since some of them knew each other from Hair. Surprisingly I wasn’t the oldest person in the room - there was an older couple, and another woman in her fifties. OK, I thought, I’m not the only crazy lady in New York, and I haven’t chickened out yet. The director, Lee, started us out singing Seasons of Love, as a group, and I was just about knocked out of my sneakers: energy and amazing talent poured out into that simple mirrored room. We had to dance a short, simple piece so Katie Rose, the choreographer, could see how everyone moved. There was a photographer, someone was shooting video. And then it was time for the try-outs. One after another these incredible girls got up to sing a snippet of Take Me Baby or Leave Me, a belter, for Julian, the music director. They were fearless. Bright. Energetic. Sassy. I sat on the floor thinking what the hell am I doing here and then found myself standing up and heading over to the piano. I can’t really say how I did it, but I did. I forgot about being afraid, and just let it rip. I didn’t die. I didn’t melt into a puddle. I just sang and it felt wonderful. I got on the subway thinking there was a tiny chance I might make it into the ensemble, but if not I’d at least done something I never ever thought I could do.
A week later the cast list was posted online and I nearly fell off my chair when I saw my name next to three tiny parts. I have two little solos as one character, I’m a back-up singer for one of the main characters, and I play a homeless woman who has tiny small solo. I’m in nine other songs with the ensemble. I’m singing, dancing, rehearsing, making new friends, learning about staging and working together with people in a whole new way. Everyone is joyful, working hard, having a great time, and no one seems concerned about failure, so why should I be afraid? Why should it be so risky to raise your voice in song, tell a story, enjoy a life?
This is more difficult than I imagined, and I understand now how hard anyone who gets up on a stage has to work at it: it’s tough to remember lines and lyrics and stage direction and choreography. There’s an unbelievable amount of new stuff to learn at every rehearsal but we’re guided by the sure hands of a creative team that’s in it for the pure love of theater. I may be terrified on Opening Night, but I won’t be alone – I’ll be surrounded by the beautiful voices of a cast full of heart; crazy, talented, fearless performers who are in it for the fun of it, for building a community of lifted voices. We may be great, and, who knows, we might be terrible, but we will be as good as we can be, and that’s all anyone can ask. The audience will be friends and family, and they’ll be rooting for us.
Some of my friends say they admire my bravery, but now I think there’s not much in life to be really afraid of – unless of course we are talking about death or physical peril. This isn’t life or death – and the lesson here is that not much in life really is. In the meantime I’m having way more fun than anything legal ought to be. And in the end, there’s just what I already knew, and what being in this show keeps reminding me:
No day but today.
It’s a shirtsleeves kind of a Friday evening, the kind of weather that won’t come around again until maybe early next October. Parents and kids and cousins and grandparents stroll in the falling daylight, chatting, holding hands, pushing strollers and bikes, slow-riding scooters and skateboards. Everyone is out and taking in this last almost-summer night: no one hurries anywhere. It’s still warm, there’s not a word of English, there’s not a tourist in sight. The sidewalks are full, the parking lots empty: no one here can afford a car. Walking, talking, passing hello in Spanish or Portuguese or Hindi. A smile and a greeting from an old man as I cross the street – Buenos tardes, he smiles. Buenos tardes, indeed. I’m reminded softly of kalisperas
The very first thing I remember making is a red felt poodle skirt. I must have been all of about seven. My mother showed me how to cut the felt circle with care, teaching me to pay serious attention to what my hands and eyes were doing along the long, clean arc of its curve. I cut a long straight strip of felt for the waistband, and after mom pinned it in place I sewed it to the hole in the circle wrong sides together then clipped then turned then folded it over and topstitched through everything to hold it in place. She initiated me into the Mysteries of the Ancient Buttonholer:
The lightning flashed like paparazzi chasing clandestine movie star lovers caught in the unlit streets at midnight: flash pop flash slash revealing buildings kissing across the boulevards in fragments of illuminated diamond brightness. The city can’t help but pose beneath the heavy crinoline of these thunderheads. She is beautiful, obscured; drenched, sparkling; grey, ethereal. I lean out my window and take her picture.
I have a present for you, I said as I came through Paul’s front door. I set my overflowing black mesh shopping bag on his worn Persian rug, leaned it snugly against the flat files so it wouldn’t fall over and pulled out my netbook, offered to him weeks before as a travel DVD player. It needed tinkering to work, and though neither of us can be remotely labeled tech geeks (which really is another story) I’d somehow managed it: Maggie’s netbook, given to me as a travel laptop, resolutely resisted the upgrade but is born again as Paul’s portable movie machine. It now plays DVDs complete with picture, sound, controls and working headphones. Elegant: not even – but it’s compact, was entirely free, and will keep him company on the long Megabus ride to Pennsylvania and back. I handed over the zipped-up neoprene case with a grin. The pulls look like rabbit ears, he said, smiling.
I have a present for you, too, he said. His gift to me was a book.
He told me he’d read it after meeting the author at an Art Colony some years back. It was good, he said, and he thought I’d like it. Paul reads: the short stacks of books scattered about his apartment an eclectic collection of poetry, fiction, travel writing and sundry other delights. He borrows most things from the library and returns them when he’s done - something I have never found myself able to do with any book I’ve really fallen for. As a teenager my library fines were legendary. I read good books over and sometimes over and occasionally even a third or fourth time over again, looking for the why of my affair with them; hungry eyes gleaning their construction; inhaling the first sensual fragrance of the story then savoring language in a long slow deliberate read; devouring words then taking them in smaller bites much later. Seeing if I’m still in love after that first fast rush of recognition and heat.
I always thought it was the language, the story, the transport, I loved about reading. But let it be said that, in short, the truth is I love books.